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Seth Masket Trump-Biden election results show how the Electoral College distorts democracy

Record but uneven turnout highlights the many Americans who have been told their states (and therefore their votes) aren't competitive in presidential races.
Image: Demonstrators
Demonstrators stand across the street from the federal courthouse in Houston on Monday before a hearing involving drive-thru ballots cast in Harris County.David J. Phillip / AP

UPDATE (Nov. 7, 2020, 12:30 p.m. ET): This piece has been updated to reflect NBC News projects that Joe Biden has defeated President Donald Trump.

One of the big stories of the 2020 election has been the huge surge in overall voter turnout. But the turnout increase has not been uniform across the states. In fact, it helps show us one of the ways the Electoral College continues to distort American democracy.

One of the big stories of the 2020 election has been the huge surge in overall voter turnout.

Texas is one of the more impressive examples of this trend. In 2016, an estimated 51 percent of the voting-eligible population showed up to vote in the presidential election. This year, estimates from Michael McDonald's U.S. Election Project suggest that 62 percent of eligible Texans showed up — an 11-point gain, or nearly 2 million people. Texas actually broke its 2016 turnout levels last Friday. It's difficult to know at this point, but while all these new voters didn't necessarily change the outcome of the state's presidential contest, they may have had a large effect on many down-ballot races.

We've seen similar stories in a number of other states. Across the country, this may be the highest-turnout presidential election in more than a century.

There are multiple reasons: A lot of money was spent by both parties; the stakes of picking one party or the other are very high; people are interested, enthusiastic and/or terrified, etc. But the biggest driver of turnout is competition. And competition, in our presidential system, is heavily affected by the Electoral College.

The Constitution leaves it up to the states how to pick their electors. Forty-eight of them do so through a winner-take-all election; whichever candidate wins a state by even the slenderest margin wins all of its Electoral College votes. That means the campaigns pay attention to the states that appear likely to be close, and voters respond.

Judging from FiveThirtyEight's pre-election polling aggregates, of the 10 states with the biggest jumps in turnout, eight were where Joe Biden was expected to get 45 percent to 55 percent of the vote: Virginia, Pennsylvania, North Carolina, New Hampshire, Michigan, Georgia, Iowa and Texas, where voter turnout increased by 9 to 11 points since 2016.

Turnout increased in most other states over 2016, but not by nearly as much. It went up by 3 percent in Alabama, 5 percent in California and 6 percent in Colorado — all respectable boosts, but much lower than in the swing states.

One of the typical defenses we hear of the Electoral College is that it forces the campaigns to pay attention to smaller, more rural states, instead of just going to the major population centers on the coasts. Regardless of whether rural populations merit extra representation, the argument just isn't true. Wyoming, Idaho, Mississippi and so forth didn't have any more of a presence in the presidential campaign than California or New York did. The campaigns pay attention not to the small states, but to the competitive ones. That's where the candidates visit; that's where they buy ads and knock on people's doors and meet with voters and conduct nearly all the campaigning we see in a "national" election. Residents of those competitive states respond to all the attention by voting more.

So it's good to focus on the increased turnout. But we should also keep the flip side in mind — all the people who could weigh in but don't because they have been told their states aren't competitive in the presidential race and therefore their presidential votes don't really matter. If Texas had been considered competitive in 2016 and had turned out at a similar rate to 2020, roughly 2 million more Texans would have voted, the U.S. Election Project numbers indicate.

It's good to focus on the increased turnout. But we should also keep the flip side in mind — all the people who could weigh in but don't.

That probably wouldn't have affected the presidential race, in which Donald Trump defeated Hillary Clinton by 9 percentage points, but think of all the congressional races, state legislative contests and other contests that might have been changed as a result. In the West Texas 23rd House district, Republican Rep. Will Hurd defeated Democrat Pete Gallego by a mere 3,051 votes in 2016. Several state House races were settled by about a thousand votes.

We should also think of the thousands of Wyomingites and Idahoans and the millions of New Yorkers and Californians who likely would have voted if their states had been more competitive — again, not because it would have affected the presidential race, but because it would have affected many other important down-ballot races and because those are eligible voters whose concerns deserve to be heard.

Now, to be sure, we aren't likely to abolish the Electoral College through a constitutional amendment any time soon — the last time anyone got close was in 1969. But there are other changes that would ameliorate some of its problems. A broad interstate agreement to award electors by congressional district — as Nebraska and Maine do — instead of winner-take-all would prompt campaigning to be far more widespread and equitable. The Interstate Voter Compact to award electors to whomever wins the nationwide popular vote would also address some of these concerns.

The Electoral College's flaws aren't going away. And until we address them, presidential campaigns will keep appealing just to residents of swing states, while the vast rest of the states will have their concerns addressed less and will continue to vote less often than their lucky neighbors.

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